Reheated cabbage about planets

Popular Science has a recent item about whether Pluto is a planet, prompted by a short paper from the NASA New Horizons team (Runyon, et al.). The paper argues for redefining ‘planet’. In the Popular Science article, Sara Chodosh tries to show “why this matters”. The back-and-forth about Pluto, she writes, is a sign that “we’re still learning”. But the problem is that the short paper doesn’t make any new arguments or reflect any new findings. Continue reading “Reheated cabbage about planets”

On the demise of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law, as posed in 1990, was this: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” [1] As internet forums replaced the Usenet, people generalized Godwin’s Law: Given enough discussion about anything, eventually somebody makes an analogy with Nazis and kills the conversation.

It was initially posed as a descriptive law, like gravitation or electromagnetism. In recent years, I’ve seen people more often describe the invocation of Nazis as a “Godwin’s Law violation”. That requires treating it instead as a proscriptive law, a commandment like Thou shalt not make an analogy between your interlocutor and Hitler.

In 2017, we are living in a post Godwin’s Law world. It isn’t funny or provacative to draw analogies with Hitler, nor is it a norm violation to say that something is what Nazis would say, when the current political scene involves actual Nazis.

Of course, President Trump isn’t literally Hitler. But some small fraction of his political base are actual Nazis, he has emboldened them to sieg heil in public, and part of his political strategy is not to distance himself too far from them. When we can ask whether it’s right to punch Nazis, not as a moral thought experiment but as a question about something we saw on the news, then Godwin’s Law just misses the point.

Continue reading “On the demise of Godwin’s Law”

This is the biggest blog post ever

Liam recently blogged about epistemic isolation, a propos blatant lies of the nascent Trump administration. Trump continues to insist that the audience at his inauguration was the biggest ever. Liam wonders why one would spend so much time making trivial claims that are easily checked and which are egregiously false.

Liam’s hypothesis, which he elaborates by name dropping Kevin Zollman and  Han Fei, is that the strategy epistemically quarantines Trump’s core supporters. Perhaps more accurately, it provides an instrument by which they can quarantine themselves. The crazy lies provide a kind of litmus test by which core supporters can guide their belief formation, to rely on sources offering the alternative facts favored by their sect and avoid sources promulgating actual facts.

Charles Sanders Peirce, in The Fixation of Belief, describes this as part of the method of authority:

“If the power to [kill everyone who disagrees] be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.”

Another possibility is that the persistent lying is just a kind of smokescreen, a distraction from other things that the administration is doing. Trump’s many executive orders receive some media attention, but not as much as they would receive if he and his proxies weren’t spending so much time lying about trivial issues.

Yet another possibility is that this is no strategy at all, that Trump is simply so vain that he cannot accept the possibility that his inauguration was not the most well-attended of all time or that a majority of voting Americans voted against him.

I do not have any way of knowing what actually motivates the current regime. As Peirce discusses it, however, the move doesn’t need to be a self-conscious strategy. Groups operating by the method of authority are unconcerned with even the concept of truth. The formation and maintenance of such groups might typically involve epistemic quarantine, because without it such groups wouldn’t form and persist. No explicit planning or strategy is required.

Self promotion

I got news today that my promotion from Associate Professor to full Professor has been approved by the university president and will be effective with the start of the Spring semester.

This is a difference that means nothing to people outside academia. It doesn’t really change my job any, because I was already department chair and already had tenure. I didn’t even put any thought into the prospect myself until I was pretty far along as an Assistant Professor.

There’s a raise in pay, but not enough that it changes the integer number of yachts I can afford to own. For those graphing yacht buying-power over time: Still zero.

Even so, colour me chuffed.

Bat speak

Some friends pointed me to a Smithsonian article about recent research on fruitbat vocalizations. The upshot is that fruitbats gripe at each other in lots of different ways.

[N]early all of the communication calls of the Egyptian fruit bat in the roost are emitted during aggressive pairwise interactions, involving squabbling over food or perching locations and protesting against mating attempt.

Using algorithms, researchers were able to discern differences in bat griping depending both on who the target bat was (who was being griped with) and the context (what the griping was about).

I have argued that, for a domain of enquiry that includes meerkats in their natural environment, different meerkat alarm calls and the classes of threats which elicit them comprise natural kinds (see ch4). That admits six kinds, because there are three different calls and three corresponding classes of threats.

There’s no reason why the argument doesn’t generalize. For fruit bat groups in their environment, there may well be natural kinds corresponding to distinct classes of vocalizations and to the classes of objects picked out by those vocalizations. But what if it turns out that bat reference to individual other bats uses sounds functioning in the fashion of proper names? Suppose there’s an individual bat that the other bats pick out with a specific squeeky sound, something like “leeko leeko leeko”. Does that individual bat count as a natural kind?

One might think the answer has to be no, because kinds and individuals are different ontological categories. I’m not tempted by that, however. As I argue, species might turn out to be continuous individuals (in their fundamental ontology) but still count as natural kinds (see ch6).

Nevertheless, the category for the specific bat leeko could only be a natural kind for the domain including that specific bat population. And it might lack enough general importance to be a natural kind for a domain that includes all the Egyptian fruit bat populations across both space and time. So my account doesn’t require the answer to be yes.

Moreover, it’s not clear to me from the recent report whether the distinctions between bat vocalizations are clear and sharp enough to count as natural kinds. As always, the answer will depend on the details.

The value in the algorithm

The LA Times has an interesting interview with self-described “data skeptic” Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction. Although the Times puts her skepticism in terms of big data, her concerns are really about values in science. Algorithms, she suggests, have a veneer of objectivity but always reflect choices and valuations. When the algorithms are secret, then the values incorporated in them aren’t open to scrutiny. She says:

I want to separate the moral conversations from the implementation of the data model that formalizes those decisions. I want to see algorithms as formal versions of conversations that have already taken place.

She also makes a point about how polling isn’t just objectively reporting on the state of the electorate, something I would probably have mused about if I’d written the post about the election that I never quite wrote:

[P]olitical polls are actually weapons of math destruction. They’re very influential; people spend enormous amounts of time on them. They’re relatively opaque. But most importantly, they’re destructive in various ways. In particular, they actually affect people’s voting patterns. … Polls can change people’s actual behavior, which disrupts democracy in a direct way.

I’ve ordered a copy of her book, and when it arrives I will put it on top of the stack of books I regret not having read.

CFP: phil art grad conference

Every year, the grad students here at UAlbany host a conference. The first one, a decade ago, was on epistemology. This year: philosophy of art!

The conference is always a lively event with great discussion. If you are a graduate student working in philosophy of art or doing work which has applications in philosophy of art, I encourage you to submit a paper and attend. If you know someone who fits that description, I encourage you to encourage them to submit.

Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics

10th Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference

University at Albany, State University of New York

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Keynote speaker: Dr. Christy Mag Uidhir, University of Houston

Deadline for submissions: Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

We invite graduate students to submit papers in any area of Philosophy of Art and/or Aesthetics.

Papers should be suitable for a 25 to 30 minute presentation (approximately 3,000-4,000 words). All submissions should be prepared for blind review and should include a separate document containing the following information: your name, paper title, an abstract of approximately 100 to 250 words, institutional affiliation, e-mail address, phone number, and where you saw this call for papers. Please submit papers via e-mail with ‘2017 Conference Submission’ in the subject line.

Acceptable formats are MS Word documents, RTF files, or PDF files. Please send submissions to uapa.submission<at>

Please note: Housing can be provided for graduate student speakers. In addition, conference registration and all meals on the day of the conference are free for all conference attendees.

Submission deadline: Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

For more information about the conference or about the submission requirements, please contact Sydney Faught at sfaught<at>

link: philevents listing for the conference

News, macabre and otherwise

I have formed the kernel of a post about the election several times, but not typed anything. It’s complicated.

What’s less complicated is publication news. 😀

I was on Marius’ thesis committee, although I got involved after he already had a good sense of the project. He began with an interest in horror fiction, planted a beachhead on the small philosophical literature about it, and used that to foray into ethics and moral psychology. More briefly and less metaphorically: His work is nifty and original.

Weekend getaway

Guro Dan Inosanto in Syracuse 23oct2016
Guro Dan Inosanto; a poor snapshot, because I didn’t take very many pictures

Cristyn and I got back last night from a weekend road trip to Syracuse, where we attended a martial arts seminar with Dan Inosanto. It was the first vacation we’ve taken in a while.

My vacation schema for as long as I can remember is to take along a laptop and some books and to fill in-between time with philosophy. I’m not sure I can remember a vacation as an adult that didn’t have at least some of that. But not this time.

Instead, my head was filled with punches, kicks, sumbrada, trapping, and hubad lubud. There was definitely more going on than I could follow, but I had things to do and learn. Cristyn has done a lot of JKD, and so grokked more of the barehand material than I did. Also, in addition to Guro Inosanto, there were a lot of high level practitioners in the room who were happy to help out.

There was also fascinating history and storytelling, literal sitting at the feet of the master stuff. This included the quotable aphorism: “If I teach you, you will forget. If you discover it, you will not forget.”

The event was organized by Kevin Seaman and Tai Kai Jui Jitsu. Thanks to them and the other attendees for making it a great weekend.

I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did Doing hubad with Dan Inosanto would be on it. And it would be checked off.

Synchronicity in blue

Tracy McMullen, a musician and scholar who plays saxophone and thinks about American vernacular music, was in Albany last weekend to collaborate with Cristyn on a musical project.

Making conversation at dinner on the last night of her stay, I asked if she’d heard of and had opinions about Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s Blue (an album that’s a note-for-note remake of the 1959 classic Kind of Blue). It turns out that she has a paper about it forthcoming in The Journal of Jazz Studies. Since I’ve also written about it, there was lots to say. A long discussion about covers, authenticity, and versioning practices ensued.

Since the number of people who have written scholarly articles about Blue is small, possibly just the two of us, it’s an odd coincidence. In some ways, though, it was like old times. I originally started thinking about the philosophy of music because of social connections through Cristyn, at grad school parties where I ended up in conversations with musicians. Although I met Tracy once or twice back then, I hadn’t really gotten a chance to know her until this weekend.

Tracy’s visit also made me nostalgic for my year at Bowdoin, since she’s now a prof there. I’m not struck by it often, but it doesn’t take much for me to be struck by that nostalgia.